Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Genre: Animation / Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind was a landmark film for Hayao Miyazaki. Having directed his first feature film (1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro) as a director-for-hire, Miyazaki had earned just praise within Japan’s fervent animation industry, but the film had not been a box office success. Championed by then-journalist Toshio Suzuki, Miyazaki was given the confidence to pursue his own projects. The man had many imaginative ideas, as we’ve come to know, but chief among those at the time was that of a distant future and a princess fated to restore balance in a world overrun by insects and consumed by man’s persistent urge to dominate. Nausicaä was an idea in full bloom, but Miyazaki’s initial pitches fell on deaf ears. For animated films at the time, if you didn’t have a source material you didn’t have a strong enough base for funding.
So, Miyazaki created one.
Debuting in 1982, the comic series Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind first appeared in the magazine Animage and quickly found a following. This would prove to be the reversal of fortune Miyazaki needed, and soon the film version was given the green light. Miyazaki didn’t stop there with the serialisation, however. The manga of Nausicaä – like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira – was destined to sprawl farther than the more famous film it generated, eventually taking its creator 10 years to complete. The full story is incredibly detailed and almost certainly the superior work. But that should in no way reduce the magnificent film that first appeared in 1984.
There are photographs of the box office queues for Nausicaä in Japan. They resemble the ones seen in the states just a few years earlier for the likes of Star Wars or Alien. The film was a huge success, and it birthed Studio Ghibli, enabling Miyazaki the ammunition and opportunity to set in motion his own dream factory. An avid fan of aviation – an interest that would manifest itself almost perpetually in his subsequent work – Miyazaki named the studio after an Italian WWII plane. Coincidentally, ‘ghibli’ had another meaning Miyazaki was not aware of; the feel of a hot wind from across the Sahara. This would prove uncannily fitting for the desert terrains that dominate the post-apocalyptic landscapes of Nausicaä .
But enough of the history lesson. What I love about this film is not how it came into being, but its existence. It’s a truly beautiful piece of work and quite probably my favourite film under the Ghibli umbrella, even if it predates the studio’s inception. The master filmmaker was literally drawing his own future, setting in place many of the themes and motifs that would recur over the next three decades.
Keenly, this is a story with strong environmental concerns. Enough for the film to earn itself a commendation from the World Wide Fund for Nature. Miyazaki presents us a vision of the Earth undone by man. Set a thousand years after a biblical-sounding seven days of fire (a man-made scourge wrought by weapons called Giant Warriors), the Earth has been covered by a ‘toxic jungle’. Much of the planet is uninhabitable, and the areas that are are contested over by a handful of small, feudal kingdoms. If that weren’t enough, the insects have evolved thanks to the planet’s contamination, growing in size and hostility. In the intervening years we have not matured or evolved ourselves. Nonsensical war persists. It’s quite an indictment. But in true Miyazaki form it’s not all doom and gloom. There is hope. Hope in the next generation.
Enter Princess Nausicaä. A classic Miyazaki heroine, Nausicaä is strong, confident, displaying extreme empathy. She has a kinship with the Earth and with nature and can see another route, another direction to take. As the title explains, she is princess of the Valley Of The Wind; a verdant, harmonious place within this devastated future. Powered by wind turbines, this small community epitomises the respectful attitude toward nature that Miyazaki cherishes. They are humble farmers, mainly, but they are devoted to their work. Nevertheless, when trouble brews they are prepared to fight to protect what is theirs.
Interestingly, Nausicaä is the sole representative of her age group within this community. Everyone else in the Valley of narrative note is either a child, middle-aged or elderly. She has no peers. She is a lone figure. This is echoed in her introduction; a solitary figure exploring ancient caves. This distancing underlines her exceptional nature, makes her spokesperson for a generation to come. Her generous heart and enthusiasm are beautiful traits. Miyazaki’s best hopes to keep us from our worst tendencies (her solitude in this regard also enhances the connection between her and Asbel when he arrives in the picture).
But Nausicaä is not the only strong female character propelling the story forward. Her opposite is Kushana, leader of the Torumekian army and precursor to Lady Eboshi of Princess Mononoke. The stories have similar shapes, in fact. Kushana is as prideful, arrogant and confident as any of her male counterparts. Witty and also ruthless. It shouldn’t be remarkable for a female character to exhibit these traits, not now and not in 1984, but to a degree it is. As with the sumptuous, fluid, detailed animation, the obsession with aeronautics and nature, Miyazaki was using Nausicaä to carve out a progressive future for Japanese animated storytelling. In the process he monumentally raised the bar, not just locally, but globally.
Nausicaä also set in place another great partnership for Miyazaki; that with composer Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi has provided the score for nearly all of Studio Ghibli’s films since, and the score for Nausicaä is among his very best. The main theme which plays over the film’s superb opening credits sequence (featuring beautiful tapestries painted by Miyazaki himself) swells and soars, recurring through the film in different forms. It is stirring and up there with the great themes of its era, or any other. It’s a varied score also. At more action-packed intervals, Hisaishi deploys decidedly sci-fi sounding 80’s synth moments; a sound rarely heard elsewhere in the Ghibli canon. While an exquisite mid-film dream sequence (for which the film’s very form changes) is backed by a nursry-rhyme like motif of children’s voices. Overall the music provides yet another rich texture to a marvelous film.
Sound is important in other forms. One thing that strikes me about Nausicaä is that in spite of how fantastic its story is, how vivid and imaginative, it all feels convincing. The animation is first-rate as previously discussed, but there’s a believable physicality to it all. Objects feel heavy, or light as air. The work has a great understanding of density and movement. This is another side of Miyazaki’s genius and attention to detail, and a key element of that working is the exemplary foley department that allows this tactile pleasure to appear effortless.
And while the story may be only a sliver of the expansive tale Miyazaki ultimately set out in the manga version, it still works as a piece in its own right. It’s well-paced, right up to its memorable, show-stopping final sequences. It’s a considered piece. One might argue that the comparatively concise nature of the film version makes it superior to the at-times rambling nature of the source material, but that’s a debate for another time and elsewhere. For now I want to close by saying that my work writing about this film today was generated by having the wonderful opportunity to present the film to an audience at a local cinema event. Public speaking is a nerve-wracking thing for me, but I also enjoy it. Bit of a Jekyl and Hyde response. But it was and is a pleasure to share this movie. An engrossing treat to be enjoyed by all.
One final note. If, like me, you enjoy cherishing the little details in a film, make sure you keep an eye on Teto, Nausicaä’s pet fox-squirrel (or fox-rat, depending on your translation preference). He’s almost always up to something cute and adorable.
Until next time.